Tag Archives: bodies

The Crown of Being: Full Essay (parts I & II)

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve put together a two part essay/review-like object that explores how one particular work of science fiction speaks directly to certain ideas of what cyborgs are and what it means to be them, with an eye toward a broader appreciation for how fiction allows for a richer understanding of theory. The full piece is below.

Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other.  –Donna Haraway

Inanna cast down Tammuz and stamped upon him and put out his name like an eye. And because Tammuz was not strong enough, she cut him into pieces and said: half of you will die, and that is the half called Thought, and half of you will live, and that is the half called Body, and that half will labor for me all of its days, mutely and obediently and without being King of Anything, and never again will you sit on my chair or wear my beautiful clothes or bear my crown of being.

You might be surprised, but this is a story about me.  –Catherynne M. Valente

Speculative fiction and this blog are not strangers to each other; it’s been written about here before,  as a means to understanding how the present has come to look the way it does, and as a means for the imagining of potential futures (also zombies). Indeed, the term cyborg always brings with it a host of connotations firmly rooted within SF, however much it may also describe a current and very real state of being. The important thing to pay attention to here is the power of stories – the ways in which they can serve as a way to do theory in a kind of experimental setting that would otherwise be impossible. In SF – and in fiction in general – we can take the implications of theory and watch them play out, see what they would look like, solidify them in words and images, pick parts of them up and move them around. We can tweak settings and watch other worlds unfold in response.

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The Crown of Being (a review) – Part II: Transgressive Verbs

The dichotomies between mind and body, animal and human, organism and machine, public and private, nature and culture, men and women, primitive and civilized are all in question ideologically. — Donna Haraway

I have tried to explain to her about my feelings before. All she hears is the line from the old folktales: a machine cannot have feelings. But that is not what I am saying, while I dance in my fool’s uniform. I am saying: Is there a difference between having been coded to present a vast set of standardized responses to certain human facial, vocal, and linguistic states and having evolved to exhibit response b to input a in order to bring about a desired social result? – Catherynne M. Valente

Almost all SFnal stories that deal with human-created life forms deal, sooner or later, with a central issue: What’s the nature of the relationship between us and them? Are they threats? Will they replace us? Do they have to be controlled? At what cost? Do they want to destroy us? Do we want to destroy them? Perhaps most importantly: What does their existence mean for our own identities? How do we understand the us through the them?

In the first part of this essay I outlined some of the ways in which Valente’s AI Elefsis presents us with a uniquely powerful imagining of some of the central concepts in Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, including the rejection of clear lines between the categories of digital/physical, ideas/bodies, organic/artificial, human/animal, and object/person. What I want to talk about in the second part of this essay is how Silently and Very Fast goes beyond the troubling of these categorical lines and directly questions the hierarchies that underpin them, through the challenging of some very old SFnal tropes.

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The Crown of Being (a review) – Part I: The Embodied Virtual

Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other.  –Donna Haraway

Inanna cast down Tammuz and stamped upon him and put out his name like an eye. And because Tammuz was not strong enough, she cut him into pieces and said: half of you will die, and that is the half called Thought, and half of you will live, and that is the half called Body, and that half will labor for me all of its days, mutely and obediently and without being King of Anything, and never again will you sit on my chair or wear my beautiful clothes or bear my crown of being.

You might be surprised, but this is a story about me.  –Catherynne M. Valente

Speculative fiction and this blog are not strangers to each other; it’s been written about here before,  as a means to understanding how the present has come to look the way it does, and as a means for the imagining of potential futures (also zombies). Indeed, the term cyborg always brings with it a host of connotations firmly rooted within SF, however much it may also describe a current and very real state of being. The important thing to pay attention to here is the power of stories – the ways in which they can serve as a way to do theory in a kind of experimental setting that would otherwise be impossible. In SF – and in fiction in general – we can take the implications of theory and watch them play out, see what they would look like, solidify them in words and images, pick parts of them up and move them around. We can tweak settings and watch other worlds unfold in response.

(more…)

We Danced to Become Machines

On Techno, Dancing, and the Augmented Self

1997, 3 am. I’m sitting against the concrete wall of a dark, empty warehouse, off Hegenberger Road in Oakland. My body is vibrating—a strong, healthy kick drum beating hard against my chest. I squint and see the DJ behind a booth, flanked by black speakers that look like monoliths. Silhouettes are scattered about: strangers dancing alone, in open spaces or near the speakers, but also in tribes, moving within circles.

My pulse is racing, thumping at the same tempo as the techno blasting in this space. The beat is urgent, extending each moment—making now last longer. And it’s kinetic, frenetic—like a rubber ball bouncing round the room. My friend’s forearm grazes mine, warm and slick from perspiration. As we touch, I feel the reverberation of the sound on her skin. The music is so loud, as if we’re in the bowels of a manufacturing plant, listening to machines repeating the same tasks over and over. These sounds consume each second, not giving me much space to think about much else.

I watch a cluster of dancers on the far side of the room. From afar, I see a flutter of geometric parts, picture flipbook pages turning in front of me. The dancers move too swift for my eyes to follow, and I see tracers of their limbs in the air. I think of Duchamp: his nude, descending a staircase, flashes before me. It feels like I have several pairs of glasses stacked sloppily on my face, and I’m peeking through a kaleidoscope in the dark.

Glowing bits and streaks of neon green and yellow and pink are sprinkled throughout this darkness, creating a network of electric vertices floating in space. A series of lasers shoots out from the opposite wall, casting a (more…)

Emotional Technology – Part I: Speaking in distant tongues

Egyptian solidarity protest in Paris, Jan. 2011. Image by Jacques Delarue.

When it comes to thought and research on social movements and technology (separately and together), emotion is that crucial piece of the picture that everyone technically sees but hardly anyone explicitly acknowledges as worth paying attention to in its own right. Some of this is likely because emotion is hard to study in any way that social science would consider rigorous; it’s often taken as something fundamentally irrational and therefore fundamentally inexplicable. It is highly subjective. It is culturally and situationally constructed, and therefore conceptually slippery. It is interior; it is a difficult thing to see and to know. If explicitly drawing it out as an important factor is problematic for some, identifying it as a variable capable of carrying any causal weight is even more so.

Regarding technology and social movements combined, there is the question of how the digital and physical play out as far as what ends up really being important. What is the relationship between the two? Where exactly is the body in augmented contention and is the way in which it matters changing? What is really going on when we see a bunch of street protesters carrying smartphones?

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Disabled Bodies and the Parable of the Good Robot

Photo by Howard Schatz

My post today comes from a class on ableism and disabled bodies that I taught earlier this past semester in my Social Problems course. Its inception came from the point at which I wanted to introduce my students to Donna Haraway’s concept of cyborgs, because I saw some useful connections between one and the other.

My angle was to begin with the idea of able-bodied society’s instinctive, gut-level sense of discomfort and fear regarding disabled bodies, which is outlined in disability studies scholar Fiona Kumari Campbell’s book Contours of Ableism. Briefly, Campbell distinguishes between disableism, which are the set of discriminatory ideas and practices that construct the world in such a way that it favors the able-bodied and marginalizes the disabled, and ableism, which is the set of constructed meanings that set disabled bodies themselves apart as objects of distaste and discomfort. In this sense, disabled bodies are imbued with a kind of queerness – they are Other in the most physical sense, outside and beyond accepted norms, unknown and unknowable, uncontrollable, disturbing in how difficult they are to pin down. Campbell identifies this quality of unknowability and uncontainability as especially, viscerally horrifying.

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The #OWS Raid at the Intersection of the Physical & Symbolic

In the 36 hours since the Occupy Wall Street raid removed protest infrastructure from Zuccotti Park, much of the conflict strikes me as the tension between the informational (the symbolic; media; ideas) and the material (physical; geographic). It runs through how New York City carried its actions out (at night, blocking journalists), the ensuing legal fight (does occupying physical space count as speech?) as well as the new strategic challenges facing an Occupy movement where camping is decreasingly an option.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that much of my work lies at the intersection of (1) information, media, technology, the online and (2) materiality, bodies and offline physical space. At this intersection, our reality is an “augmented” one. Part of the success of Occupy (and other recent protest movements) has been the awareness of just this point: by uniting media and information with the importance of flesh-and-blood bodies existing in physical space, our global atmosphere of dissent is increasingly one of an augmented revolution. Indeed, these are not protests centered online, as Jeff Jarvis tweeted this morning, or Zuccotti park, but in the augmented reality where the two intersect.

And this intersection of the power of the image and the power of the material dramatically came to a head about 36 hours ago as I write. In the early morning of November 15th, the two-month long occupation of Zuccotti Park was eliminated by the City of New York. (more…)

Equipment: Why You Can’t Convince a Cyborg She’s a Cyborg

Everybody knows the story: Computers—which, a half century ago, were expensive, room-hogging behemoths—have developed into a broad range of portable devices that we now rely on constantly throughout the day.  Futurist Ray Kurzweil famously observed:

progress in information technology is exponential, not linear. My cell phone is a billion times more powerful per dollar than the computer we all shared when I was an undergrad at MIT. And we will do it again in 25 years. What used to take up a building now fits in my pocket, and what now fits in my pocket will fit inside a blood cell in 25 years.

Beyond advances in miniaturization and processing, computers have become more versatile and, most importantly, more accessible.  In the early days of computing, mainframes were owned and controlled by various public and private institutions (e.g., the US Census Bureau drove the development of punch card readers from the 1890s onward). When universities began to develop and house mainframes, users had to submit proposals to justify their access to the machine. They were given a short period in which to complete their task, then the machine was turned over to the next person. In short, computers were scarce, so access was limited. (more…)

‘The Bionic Girl’ Chloe Holmes Receives Prosthetic Hand

Just a quick link I came across over the weekend before the hurricane knocked out my power. In the video below, we see Chloe Holmes displaying her new prosthetic hand, a $62,000 piece of technology that allows her to move each digit independently of one another through sensors embedded in the sleeve. Chloe lost her fingers at age 3 as a result of septicemia, a complication from chicken pox.

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Epidermal Electronics and The Cyborg Body

Photo Credit: John A. Rogers

I have written before about the (new) cyborg body, mostly in the form of tattoos and body modification, but new technologies are pushing this trend further in the form of epidermal electronics. John Rogers and his research colleagues, at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaigne have developed rubbery sheets of “elastometer” that mimic the mechanical properties of the human skin. This allows them to embed circuits and semiconductors into the material and apply it to the human skin much like one applies a temporary tattoo. Jon Cartwright reports that this material (more…)